James Naismith

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Canadian-born James Naismith, inventor of the game of basketball, was born on November 6, 1861 in Almonte, Ontario. He and his two siblings were orphaned when both parents died of typhoid fever in 1870. They lived with their grandmother until she passed away, then moved in with an uncle who had a farm in Bennie’s Corners, Ontario.

As a youngster, Naismith was an outstanding athlete who clearly showed leadership qualities. When he entered McGill University in Montreal, he pursued athletics, including rugby and gymnastics, and won the Silver and Gold Wickstead Medals for “Best All-Around Athlete” in 1885 and 1887, respectively. He graduated with honors with his B.S. in philosophy and Hebrew in 1887, among the top ten in his class. 

Naismith continued his education, studying theology at The Presbyterian College in Montreal. He took a job at McGill as the Physical Education director in order to finance his schooling. In 1890, Presbyterian awarded him his Master of Divinity degree. Meanwhile, the Young Men's Christian Association, which had been founded in London nearly 50 years earlier, had been established in Boston and Montreal in 1851. Naismith had visited often and thought that he could help young people through athletics at such an organization. He learned about the YMCA International Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts, and enrolled there that summer, participating in sports while also taking and teaching classes.

For one of the classes that he instructed, Naismith was charged by the superintendent to come up with new games that could help bring recreational sports into the gymnasium. He needed to come up with a game that could be played indoors during the winter months between the football and baseball seasons that would keep athletes in top shape. The game that resulted, which was reminiscent of a childhood game that Naismith had played called “Duck on a Rock,” used two peach baskets and a soccer ball.  On December 21, 1891 Naismith introduced the first game of basketball to his class.

Naismith taught his class of 18 students to play the game, dividing them into two teams of nine, each with a goal keeper, two guards, three centers, two wings, and a home-man. Each team would try to toss a soccer ball into the peach baskets.  On January 15, 1892, a year after inventing the game, Naismith officially announced the game and its rules in the Springfield College school newspaper.

Eventually, they removed the bottoms out of the baskets to avoid having to climb up and grab the ball out of the baskets every time someone scored. The metal rim was invented in 1893, followed by the the first basket ball by Spaulding in 1894, and the backboard in 1895.

The popularity of basketball spread very quickly. Soon, it was played in all of the YMCA gymnasiums in the eastern United States. Within seven years, the first intercollegiate game was played in 1895.  The first professional league, the National Basketball League (NBL) was formed in 1898.  A competing league, the Basketball Association of America (BAA),  later joined the NBL to form the National Basketball Association (NBA) in 1949.

Basketball has changed somewhat. Today, it is less brutal than it was in its early days, and it is now played by five players from each team on the court at a time, including two forwards, two guards, and a center. Now men’s professional basketball has two conferences (Eastern and Western) made up of four regional divisions.

In 1936, basketball became an Olympic sport and in 1976, women's basketball was added to the Olympics roster. The Women's Professional Basketball League was established in 1978.

Naismith, who had been ordained as a minister in 1914, never pursued self-recognition, honors, or riches for his invention. He died on November 28, 1939 in Lawrence, Kansas. Today, the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts is dedicated to Naismith, as well as to basketball’s greatest players, coaches, and teams. An estimated 300 million people play the game worldwide.